The Real Story of “The Central Park Karen”

New evidence comes to light. And Amy Cooper breaks her silence.

Amy Cooper was not the internet’s first “Karen” — the pejorative used for a demanding, entitled white woman. But as the Central Park dog walker who called the police on a black birdwatcher last year, she quickly became the paragon of the archetype.

In a video that went instantly viral, we watch as she summons law enforcement to protect her from the man, whose race she mentions three times in a matter of moments: “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”

Just over a minute long, the video flooded social media alongside a second one filmed that same day: the horrifying footage of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a man named George Floyd.

The conflation of these two stories in the public imagination began almost immediately — and not without cause. The Central Park video looked really bad. 

Many accused Amy Cooper of “weaponizing white tears.” They said she was deliberately attempting to sic racist cops on the birdwatcher, Christian Cooper (no relation). Comparisons to Emmett Till were instant.

“It’s important for us to remember that what happened to George Floyd is what Amy Cooper would have wanted to happen to Christian Cooper,” as one YouTuber put it, reflecting a sentiment echoed broadly across Twitter and beyond.

The outcry was overwhelming, and it was supercharged by the mainstream press. The New York Times ran a dozen stories, letters, and Op-Eds in the first week alone. A rattled Gayle King said it felt like “open season” on black men, with Amy “nearly strangling her dog to falsely accuse another black man.” Trevor Noah said that Amy “blatantly knew how to use the power of her whiteness to threaten the life of another man and his blackness.”

By the next day, Amy Cooper had been doxxed, had surrendered her dog, had lost her job, and had issued a half-hearted defense followed by an abject apology. Christian Cooper would go on to become a minor celebrity, penning a story for D.C. Comics inspired by the incident, heralded across the media and even by Joe Biden. “You made an incredible contribution at a very important moment,” the future president said.

Though I know neither of the Coopers, this scenario felt uncomfortably familiar to me. I was born and raised in a culture of public judgment and condemnation: the Westboro Baptist Church, also known as the “God Hates Fags” people. My grandfather founded the church, and I was among its most passionate evangelists.

Dozens of documentaries and more than 20,000 of my own tweets catalog my misdeeds — most egregiously, public celebrations of death and tragedy outside the funerals of American servicemen, victims of natural disasters, and anyone who spoke out against my church’s message. “God Is Your Enemy” and “You’re Going to Hell” were two of my favorite protest signs. I often held them while dancing atop an American flag.

I left the church nearly a decade ago, after becoming convinced that the paradigm I’d been taught from birth was destructive and cruel. When I left, I was deeply relieved to let that culture of condemnation go. Twenty-six years of loudly attacking the “sins” of others — only to realize that my own had often been worse — had taught me that life was far, far more complicated than I’d been raised to believe.

So when I encounter viral moments like the one involving the Coopers — the angel and the villain so neatly laid out, each person frozen in roles in a grand ideological narrative — my first instinct is to ask: What context am I missing here?

Here the answer was: an awful lot.

For starters, there was the Facebook post that Christian shared when he uploaded the original video, which his sister posted on Twitter in the hours after the encounter. In the post, Christian recorded his contemporaneous account of what happened in the moments before the camera started rolling. “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it,” Christian recounted himself saying to Amy. He also shared that he’d pulled out “the dog treats I carry for just for [sic] such intransigence.”

I had read an embarrassing number of stories and social media takes about this brief conflict. Not a single one of them had mentioned this public Facebook post.

He threatened her, I thought, stunned. He says himself that he approached her a woman alone in a wooded area. He tried to lure away her dog. How was this the first time I was reading these details? Had I just missed them in the other stories I’d read?

I started looking at the Cooper coverage more critically. A Washington Post article summarized the conflict this way: Christian Cooper “approached the dog’s owner early on Monday with a request: Could she leash up the canine, as the park rules required? Amy Cooper said she would be calling the police instead.” The implication of this and most other accounts was that Amy Cooper called the police simply because he’d asked her to leash her dog. And even though the article included a link to Christian’s Facebook post, the text of the article failed to mention the threat at all.

Why had the Post left it out?

Then I read a 2,500-word report from the New York Times purporting to be “the inside story.” Its opening paragraphs offered a detailed account of the conflict — until it came to Christian’s threat. Instead of quoting him, they summarized with: “They exchanged words.” I couldn’t believe it. I wondered briefly if they were even aware of what Christian Cooper had said. Then I found it buried in the story’s closing paragraphs, long after most readers would have moved on. 

Another question arose as I tried to untangle the facts from the narrative: If the roles of Amy and Christian had been reversed — if she had been a birdwatcher who accosted a dog-walker for running his dog off-leash, if she had confronted him for breaking the park rules, if she had tried to lure his dog away from him with “dog treats I carry for just such intransigence” — wouldn’t she still be the Karen? In other words: was it her behavior or her identity that had done her in?

I wasn’t the only one who became preoccupied with questions like these. 

Kmele Foster, friend of Common Sense and co-host of The Fifth Column podcast, has spent the past several months reporting this story. For the first time since that viral video, Amy Cooper — who now lives in hiding and is suing her former employer for race and gender discrimination — sat down for an extensive interview.

Kmele also uncovered important context lost in the public narrative, including:

  • A recording of Christian Cooper at a local community board meeting just days before his encounter with Amy Cooper. “It’s getting super ugly between birders and unleashed dog walkers,” he says. “I’ve been assaulted twice so far this spring, people actually putting their hands on me, which really surprises me, because I’m not a small guy.”

  • May 2020 testimony provided by Jerome Lockett, a black man who said Christian had “aggressively” threatened him in the park. Among the details: “when I saw that video, I thought, I cannot imagine if he approached her the same way how she may have genuinely been afraid for her life.” He continued, “If I wasn’t who I was, I would of [sic] called the police on that guy too.”

  • Lockett also says: “My two fellow dog owners have had similar situations with this man, but don’t feel comfortable coming forward because they’re white. They think they’ll be seen as some ‘Karen’ or whatever.” His complete statement can be found on page nine here.

  • The dispatch from Amy Cooper’s 911 call, which seems to corroborate her explanation that her double reference to Christian’s race to the operator — and the growing hysteria she displayed in the video — was the result of a bad cell phone connection. Listen here:

  • Amy’s history of sexual assault, her suicidal ideation, and why she fled the country.

We cover all of this and much more in today’s episode of Honestly

At first blush, reexamining this conflict would seem to be the definition of a hill not to die on. Amy Cooper, certainly as she appeared in that video, proved an especially easy figure to revile. What personal benefit can come to anyone who publicly tries to understand or empathize with a person so widely hated?

So why tell this story?

It’s not because Amy Cooper’s life was destroyed by this video, though that is a tragedy. Nor is telling this story an attempt to deny the existence of racism and its insidious legacy. (This is one belief I’ve retained from my Westboro days: In the vein of abolitionist preachers of the past, my grandfather, a lawyer, was a civil rights pioneer in Kansas.)

To tell this story is to address a different set of problems.

Among them: our collective intoxication with public shaming. Our willingness to dispense with due process when we think we “know” the truth in the absence of evidence. The media’s complicity in perpetuating public judgments, even when the facts directly contradict those judgments. The lack of proportion in the punishments meted out to perceived offenders. The absence of any avenue for redemption or reconciliation when a breach has been made. And the mercilessness shown to those at the center of these storms, often leaving them suicidal and broken. (Thankfully, Christian Cooper tried to rein in some excesses of the public reaction: “I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart.” And I hope it’s clear that attacking him isn’t part of our purpose here.)

I suspect this story has stuck with me for well over a year because it brings me back to my Westboro past in visceral ways. For my entire upbringing, I watched church elders eviscerate allegedly wayward members. Even when the “evidence” was flimsy and the “offense” ambiguous, I remained quiet, believing I was insufficiently spiritual to render an accurate judgment. 

As the wrath of the public came down on Amy Cooper last year, I had the same feeling I’d often had at Westboro: I can’t see how her actions are as evil as I’m being told they are. I must be missing something. I wish I had paid attention to that feeling and found the courage to speak up sooner.

I see Westboro in the way that the best intentions — here, a desire to end racism — led to a collective molding of facts to fit a predetermined narrative. And I see Westboro in the way that this narrative was then used to justify extreme judgment and punishment.

But it’s my break in faith — in this case, with the media organizations I’d trusted most, which deliberately suppressed inconvenient facts — that returns me most powerfully to Westboro. It will be no surprise to readers of this newsletter that America’s distrust in the media is a massive and growing problem. Yet unlike my former church, the press isn’t a small, relatively powerless community we can simply walk away from. 

Surely there will be people who will learn more of the context of the Cooper incident in Central Park and continue to believe that Amy Cooper is a racist. I don’t believe the evidence supports that position. But at least they will be coming to that conclusion in light of the evidence, rather than in the absence of it.

One of the goals of this newsletter and podcast is to tell stories about the world as it actually is. I think we deliver on that promise in today’s episode of Honestly. I was grateful for the opportunity to produce today’s show alongside my friend Andy Mills, and to bring Kmele Foster’s reporting to all of you.

You can listen to the episode by pressing play right here:

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